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George Brown
Chapter XV - Confederation


"EVENTS stronger than advocacy, events stronger than men,” to repeat Darcy McGee’s phrase, combined in 1864 to remove confederation from the field of speculation to the field of action. For several years the British government had been urging upon Canada the necessity for undertaking a greater share of her own defence. This view was expressed with disagreeable candour in the London Times and elsewhere on the occasion of the defeat of the Militia Bill of 1862. The American Civil t War emphasized the necessity for measures of defence. At the time of the Trent seizure, Great Britain and the United States were on the verge of war, of which Canada would have been the battleground. As the war progressed, the world was astonished by the development of the military power of the republic. It seemed not improbable, at that time, that when the success of the North was assured, its great armies would be used for the subjugation of Canada. The North had come to regard Canada as a home of Southern sympathizers and a place in which conspiracies against the republic were hatched by Southerners. Though Canada was not to blame for the use that was made of its soil, yet some ill-feeling was aroused, and public men were warranted in regarding the peril as real.

5 Canada was also about to lose a large part of its trade. For ten years that trade had been bi ilt up largely on the basis of reciprocity with the United States, and the war had largely increased the American demand for Canadian products. It was generally expected, and that expectation was fulfilled, that the treaty would be abrogated by the United States. It was feared that the policy of commercial non-intercourse would be carried even farther, the bonding system abolished, and Canada cut off from access to the seaboard during the winter.

If we add to these difficulties the domestic dissensions of Canada, we must recognize that the outlook was dark. Canada was then a fringe of settlement, extending from the Detroit River to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, having no independent access to the Atlantic except during the summer. She had been depending largely upon Great Britain for defence, and upon the United States for trade. She had received warning that both these supports were to be weakened, and that she must rely more on her own resources, find new channels of trade and new means of defence. The country lay in the midst of the continent, isolated from the west, isolated in part from the east, with a powerful and not too friendly neighbour to the south. Upper and Lower Canada, with their racial differences as sharply defined as in the days of Lord Durham, regarded each other with distrust; one political combination after another had failed to obtain a working majority of the legislature, and domestic government was paralyzed. Such a combination of danger and difficulty, within and without, might well arouse alarm, rebuke faction and stimulate patriotism.

The election of 1863 was virtually a drawn battle. The Reformers had a large majority in Upper Canada, their opponents a like majority in Lower Canada, and thus not only the two parties, but the two provinces, were arrayed against each other. The Reform government, headed by Sand-field Macdonald and Dorion, found its position of weakness and humiliation intolerable, and resigned in March, 1864. The troubled governor-general called upon A. T. Fergusson Blair, a colleague of Sandfield Macdonald, to form a new administration. lie failed. He called upon Cartier with a like result. He finally had a little better success with Sir E. P. Taohé, a veteran who had been a colleague of Baldwin, of Hincks, and of Macdonald. Taché virtually restored the Cartier-Macdonaid government, taking in Foley and McGee from the other side. In less than three months, on June 14th, this government was defeated, and on the very day of its defeat relief came. Letters written by Brown to his family during the month preceding the crisis throw some light on the situation.

On May 13th he writes: “Things here are very unsatisfactory; no one sees his way out of the mess —and there is no way but my way—representation by population. There is great talk to-day of coalition—and what do you think? Why, that in order to make the coalition successful, the imperial government are to offer me the government of one of the British colonies. I have been gravely asked to-day by severaJ if it is true, and whether I would accept. My reply was, I would rather be proprietor of the G-lobe newspaper for a few years than be governor-general of Canada, much less a trumpery little province. But I need hardly tell you, the thing has no foundation, beyond sounding what could be done to put me out of the way and let mischief go on. But we won’t be bought at any price, shall we?” On May 18th he writes that he has brought on his motion for constitutional changes, and on May 20th that it has carried and taken Cartier and Macdonald by surprise. “Much that is directly practical may not flow from the committee, but it is an enormous gain to have the acknowledgment on our journals that a great evil exists, and that some remedy must be found.”

On June 14th Mr. Brown, as chairman of a committee appointed to consider the difficulties connected with the government of Canada, brought in a report recommending a federative system, applied either to Canada alone, or to the whole British North American provinces.” This was the day on which the Taché government was defeated. On the subject of the negotiations which followed between Mr. Brown and the government, there is a difference between the account given by Sir John Macdonald in the House, and accepted by all parties as official, and a letter written by Mr. Brown to a member of his family. The official account represents the first movement as coming from Mr. Brown, the letter says that the suggestion came from the governor-general. It would seem likely that the idea moved gradually from informal conversations to formal propositions. The governor had proposed a coalition on the defeat of the Macdonald-Dorion government, and he repeated the suggestion on the defeat of the Tache-Macdonald government; but his official memorandum contains no reference to constitutional changes. It would seem that there was a great deal of talk of coalition in the air before Brown made his proposals, and perhaps some talk of offering him an appointment that would remove him from public life. But the Conservative ministers were apparently thinking merely of a coalition that would break the dead-lock, and enable the ordinary business of the country to proceed. Brown's idea was to find a permanent remedy in the form of a change in the constitution. When he made his proposal to co-operate with his opponents for the purpose of settling the difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada, his proposal fell upon minds familiarized with the idea of coalition, and hence its ready acceptance. On his part, Mr. Brown was ready to abate certain party advantages in order to bring about constitutional reform. Mr. Ferrier, in the debate on confederation, says that it was he who suggested that the proposal made by Mr. Brown to Mr. Pope and Mr. Morris should be communicated to the government. Ferrier gives a lively account of the current gossip as to the meeting between Brown and the ministers. “I think I can remember this being said, that when Mr. Galt met Mr. Brown he received him with that manly, open frankness which characterizes him ; that when Mr. Cartier met Mr. Brown, he looked carefully to see that his two Rouge friends were not behind him, and that when he was satisfied they were not, he embraced him with open arms and swore eternal friendship; and that Mr. Macdonald, at a very quick glance, saw there was an opportunity of forming a great and powerful dependency of the Bri+’sh empire. . . . We all thought, in fact, that a political millennium had arrived.”

In a family letter written at this time Mr. Brown said: “June 18th, past one in the morning. We have had great times since I wrote you. On Tuesday we defeated the government by a majority of two. They asked the governor-general to dissolve parliament, and he consented; but before acting on it, at the governor’s suggestion, they applied to me to aid them in reconstructing the government, on the basis of settling the constitutional difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada. I refused to accept office, but agreed to help them earnestly and sincerely in the matter they proposed. Negotiations were thereupon commenced, and are still going on, with considerable hope of finding a satisfactory solution to our trouble. The tacts were announced in the House to-day by John A. Macdonald, amid tremendous cheering from both sides of the House. You never saw such a scene ; but you will have it all in the papers, so I need not repeat. Both sides are extremely urgent that I should accept a place in the government, if it were only for a week ; but I will not do this unless it is absolutely needed to the success of the negotiations. A more agreeable proposal is that I should go to England to arrange the new constitution with the imperial government. But as the whole thing may fail, we will not count our chickens just yet.”

Sir Richard Cartwright, then a young member of parliament, relates an incident -Ilustrating the tension on men’s minds at that time. He says: “ On that memorable afternoon when Mr. Brown, not without emotion, made his statement to a hushed and expectant House, and declared that he was about to ally himself with Sir Georges Cartier and his friends for the purpose of carrying out confederation, I saw an excitable, elderly little French member rush across the floor, climb up on Mr. Brown, who, as you remember, was of a stature approaching the gigantic, fling his arms about his neck and hang several seconds there suspended, to the visible consternation of Mr. Brown and to the infinite joy of all beholders, pit, box and gallery included.”

The official account given by Mr. Macdonald in the House, is that immediately after the defeat of the government on Tuesday night (the 11th), and on the following morning, Mr. Brown spoke to several supporters of the administration, strongly urging that the present crisis should be utilized in! settling forever the constitutional difficulties between Upper and Lower Canada, and assuring them that he was ready to co-operate with the existing or any other administration that would deal with the question promptly and firmly, with a view to its final settlement. Mr. Morris and Mr. Pope, to whom the suggestion was made, obtained leave to communicate it to Mr. John A. Macdonald and Mr. Galt. On June 17th Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Galt called upon Mr. Brown. In the conversation that ensued Mr. Brown expressed his extreme reluctance to entering the ministry, declaring that the public mind would be shocked by such an arrangement. The personal question being dropped for the time, Mr. Brown asked what remedy was proposed.

Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Galt replied that their remedy was a federal union of all the British North American provinces. Mr. Brown said that this would not be acceptable to Upper Canada. The federation of all the provinces ought to come and would come in time, but it, had not yet been thoroughly considered by the people; and even were this otherwise, there were so many parties to be consulted that its adoption was uncertain and remote. He expressed his preference for parliamentary reform, based on population. On further discussion it appeared that a compromise might be found in an alternative p;an, a federal ui*ion of all the British North American provinces or a federal union of Upper and Lower Canada, with provision for the admission of the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory when they desired. There was apparently a difference of opinion as to which alternative should be presented first. One memorandum reduced to writing gave the preference to the larger federation; the second and final memorandum contained this agreement: “The government are prepared to pledge themselves to bring in a measure next session for the purpose of removing existing difficulties by introducing the federal principle into Canada, coupled with such provisions as will permit the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory to be incorporated into the same system of government. And the government will, by sending representatives to the Lower Provinces and to England, use its best endeavours to secure the assent of those interests which are beyond the control of oar own legislation to such a measure as may enable all British North America to be united under a general legislature based upon the federal principle.”

It was Mr. Brown who insisted on this mode of presentation. At the convention of 18.59 he had expressed in the strongest language his hope for the creation of a great Canadian nationality; and he had for years advocated the inclusion of the North-West Territories in a greater Canada. But he regarded the settlement of the difficulties of Upper and Lower Canada as the most pressing question of the hour, and he did not desire that the solution of this question should be delayed or imperilled. Galt’s plan of federation, comprehensive and admirable as it was, had failed because the assent of the Maritime Provinces could not be secured; and for five years afterwards no progress had been made. It was natural that Brown should be anxiously desirous that the plan for the reform of the union of the Canadas should not fail, whatever else might happen.

On June 21st, Mr. Brown called a meeting of the members of the Opposition for Upper Canada. It was resolved, on motion of Mr. Hope Mackenzie, “that we approve of the course which has been pursued by Mr. Brown :n the negotiations with the government, and that we approve of the project of a federal union of the Canadas, with provision for the inclusion of the Maritime Provinces and the North-West Territory, as one basis on which the constitutional difficulties now existing could be settled.” Thirty-four members voted for this motion, five declining to vote. A motion that three members of the Opposition should enter the government was not so generally supported, eleven members, including Alexander Mackenzie and Oliver Mowat, voting in the negative. The Lower Canadian Reformers held aloof, and in the subsequent debate in the legislature, strongly opposed confederation.

There were many evidences of the keen interest taken by the governor-general (Monk) in the negotiations. On June 21st he wrote to Mr. Brown: “I think the success or failure of the negotiations which have been going on for some days, with a view to the formation of a strong government on a broad basis, depends very much on your consenting to come into the cabinet.

“Under these circumstances I must again take the liberty of pressing upon you, by this note, my opmion of the grave responsibility which you will take upon yourself if you refuse to do so.

“Those who have hitherto opposed your views have consented to join with you in good faith for the purpose of extricating the province from what appears to me a very dangerous position.

“They have frankly offered to take up and endeavour to settle on principles satisfactory to all, the great constitutional question which you, by your energy and ability, have made your own.

“The details of that settlement must necessarily be the subject of grave debate in the cabinet, and I confess I cannot see how you are to take part in that discussion, or how your opinions can be brought to bear on the arrangement of the question, unless you occupy a place at the council table.

“I hope I may, without impropriety, ask you to take these opinions into consideration before you arrive at a final decision as to your own course.”

Mr. Brown wrote home that he, in consenting to enter the cabinet, was influenced by the vote of the Reform members, by private letters from many quarters, and still more by the extreme urgency of the governor-general. “ The thing that finally determined me was the fact, ascertained by Mowat and myself, that unless we went in the whole effort for constitutional changes would break down, and the enormous advantages gained by our negotiations probably be lost. Finally, at three o’clock yesterday, I consented to enter the cabinet as ‘ president of the council,’ with other two seats in the cabinet at my disposal—one of which Mowat will take, and probably Macdougall the other. We consented with great reluctance, but there was no help for it; and it was such a temptation to have possibly the power of settling the sectional troubles of Canada forever. The announcement was made in the House yesterday, and the excitement all over the province s intense. I send you an official copy of the proceedings during the negotiations, from which you will see the whole story. By next mail I intend to send you some extracts from the newspapers. The unanimity of sentiment is without example in this country, and were it not that I know at their exact value the worth of newspaper laudations, I might be puffed up a little in my own conceit. After the explanations by ministers I had to make a speech, but was so excited and nervous at the events of the last few days that I nearly broke down. However, after a little I got over it, and made (as Mowat alleges) the most telling speech I ever made. There was great cheering when I sat down, and many members from both sides crowded round me to congratulate me. In short, the whole movement is a grand success, and I really believe will have an immense influence on the future destinies of Canada.”

The formation of the coalition cabinet was announced on June 30th. Foley, Buchanan and Simpson, members of the Upper Canadian section of the Taché-Macdonald ministry, retired, and their places were taken by the Hon. George Brown. Oliver Mowat, and William Macdougall. Otherwise the ministry remained unchanged. Sir E. P. Taché, though a Conservative, was acceptable to both parties, and was well fitted to head a genuine coalition. But it must have been evident from the first that the character of a coalition would not be long maintained. The Reform party, which had just defeated the government in the legislature, was represented by only three ministers out of twelve; and this, with Macdonald's skiIl in managing combinations of men, made it practically certain that the ministry must eventually become Conservative, just as happened in the case of the coalition of 1854. Brown had asked that the Reformers be represented by four ministers from Upper Canada and two from Lower Canada, which would, as nearly as possible, have corresponded with the strength of his party in the legislature. Galt and Macdonald represented that a change in the personnel of the Lower Canadian section of the cabinet would disturb the people and shake their confidence. The Lower Canadian Liberal leaders, Dorion and Holton, were adverse to the coalition scheme, regarding it as a mere device for enabling Macdonald and his friends to hold office.

Mowat and Brown were re-elected without difficulty, but Macdougall met with strong opposition in North Ontario. Brown, who was working hard in his interests, found this opposition so strong among Conservatives that he telegraphed to Macdonald, who sent a strong letter on behalf of Macdougall. Brown said that the opposition came chiefly from Orangemen. The result was that Macdougall, in spite of the assistance of the two leaders, was defeated by one hundred. He was subsequently elected for North Lanark. In other bye-elections the advocates of confederation were generally successful. In the confederation debate, Brown said there had been twenty-five contests, fourteen for the Upper House and eleven for the Lower House, and that only one or two opponents of confederation had been elected.

There had been for some years an intermittent movement for the union of the Maritime Provinces, and in 1801 their legislatures had authorized the holding of a convention at Charlottetown. Accordingly eight members of the Canadian ministry visited Charlottetown, where they were cordially welcomed. They dwelt on the advantage of substituting the larger for the smaller plan of union, and the result of their representations was that arrangements were made for the holding of a general conference at Quebec later in the year. The Canadian ministers made a tour through the Maritime Provinces, speaking in public and familiarizing the people with the plan. At a banquet in Halifax, Mr. Brown gave a full exposition of the project and its advantages in regard to defence, commerce, national strength and dignity, adding that it would end the petty strifes of a small community, and elevate politics and politicians,

The scheme was destined to undergo a more severe ordeal in the Maritime Provinces than these festive gatherings. For the present, progress was rapid, and the maritime tour was followed by the conference at Quebec, which opened on October 10th, 1864.


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